Crookneck 1920 1280 Ali Riegel

When I was seven my grandfather died in our vegetable garden, crushing the best squash plant. I was working with him, watering the marigolds we planted to keep aphids at bay as he bent to pluck potted basil grown long and sour with age. He fanned the gathered leaves in his shirt pocket like a silk square. He was two feet from me, expounding like an Italian grandmother on the virtues of pignolis over walnuts for pesto, when he turned into a marble statue falling, a frozen crash onto the earth.

Sticky hothouse summer meant baskets of purple okra and the need for the after-business of death to move quickly. My mother sprouted a russet dash between her eyes—a burst blood vessel, the pressure all that weeping. It served as a pinch point for one hand as the other managed calls from family, made arrangements for the burial of her father. The funeral home she found was an antebellum mansion reeking of sweet, artificial cherry. I said it smelled like our grandfather’s car. My brother Trace said that it was chemical air freshener meant to cover up cigarette smoke. He had taken a toothpick fuzzed with red plastic from a dispenser in the men’s bathroom and tucked it in his mouth like a movie cowboy. My brother half-circled the casket with his arms crossed, facing the mourners, his little mouth set. I sat off to the side on a bench, sucking a cherry Dum Dum gifted to me by the funeral director and avoiding the sight of my mother, going to pieces in my aunts’ arms.

After the service, Trace and I crunched around the parking lot in our acrylic and wool Easterwear while the adults comforted each other under the green awning. The asphalt shivered with heat—I could feel it radiating up around my ankles, scratchy in lacy Easter socks. My two boy cousins waited with us next to a creamy white hearse. During the receiving of friends, they had raced each other down the long central hall, their feet ruffling shadows into the thick carpet. Now, fat-ripe with cruelty in their little suits, they imitated our adults—the handkerchiefed sniffles, the fluttery pats on arms. When they leaned their smirking faces into each other’s’ necks the same way my mother craned into my father, my brother chopped an arm between them and swept one back onto his bottom, back onto the asphalt. They cried, of course they did, they made a whole scene, and my brother was made to say sorry.

As soon as they got my grandfather up on the stretcher I began to mourn that squash plant—a great big crookneck, my beloved octopus waiter, with stalks in all directions carrying leaves as big as dinner plates. They made a watery sound when he landed, like teeth on celery, and they stayed flat for days afterward as if themselves stunned by grief.  I took up guard duty, setting up my Barbie camp chair between the tomato plants and bean trellis and spending afternoons on watch for unnamed dangers.

My mother wanted to go see my grandfather every day at the cemetery, but I refused. I was afraid of the headstones, large and crushing. I imagined myself trapped underneath one, squashed flat in my funeral dress, my boy cousins dancing around me on the grass—gleeful, inoculated to sorrow, incommunicado on the desert island of their little selves, bodies still new to the world and feral with excitement. In my fantasy it was physically painless, and the fear and terror came from not being found, from being left out in that graveyard. My grandfather’s marble plaque was halfway down a clovered slope, leading to woods quilted with kudzu. Below the plaque rose the muddy tumor of his urn, which my mother skirted whenever she knelt to press her fingers to the stone.

The crookneck raised its arms again after a few days, in fact it flowered madly, as if to distance itself from what happened, insist on its aliveness. But my mother refused its fruit. I refused it because she did, and also because of tombstones falling and fanned basil leaves. But still she sliced it for my father, unsuperstitious and ever-working out in the tool shed, ever-working to build a hunger he would loudly proclaim. Trace followed his lead, Trace with his set little mouth. The irony or horror or simple grief—whatever it was—did not reach them. My mother would boil the slices with onions, then drain and smother them with butter and salt and pepper. I watched her press the tip of the knife into the yellow bellies with tenderness, as though testing for an ooze of blood.

“It’s wrong to eat it,” said my mother, smoking on the patio in her Wranglers. Inside, the squash’s flesh greened in the bubbling water, and Wesson oil heated in the electric skillet for fried chicken. “It’s cruelty.” I could hear her even though I was out again in the garden, squatting near the big crookneck. It felt good to be near something that had survived. I could hear my mother even though she wasn’t talking to me, her words seem enter my ear and echo through my body, down into the soft soil, where they stopped. I inspected the unplucked yellow fruit for damage, for change, for any sign whatsoever. But there was nothing, nothing. I stayed facing them as I heard the door creak open, as my mother went back inside to finish making dinner for the three of us, whom she also loved.

Header photograph © Denise Nichole Andrews.

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